India Has a Massive Web Access Gender Gap

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The road to closing it might be navigated with bicycle carts.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: sandeepachetan/Flickr)

The greatest cause of the gap between those who have Internet access and those who don’t is the same as the gap between any haves and have-nots: money. If you can’t pay for your service, you usually don’t have the service. Age can also be a factor, in that older folks don’t always feel the need, or have the resources, to learn new digital skills. Geography matters too: Lack of infrastructure makes the question irrelevant.

Yet within those gaps, there’s one that’s rarely discussed, partly because the problem doesn’t really exist much in the United States, and partly because there’s no obvious solution to it. That’s the digital divide of gender. In most places around the world, the gap between male and female Internet use is slight and closing. Worldwide, 45.9 percent of men use it, while 40.8 percent of women do.

While nearly 35 percent of the country’s people have access, 71 percent of those users are male and only 29 percent are female.

But nowhere on the planet is the divide as dramatic as it is in India. While nearly 35 percent of the country’s people have access, 71 percent of those users are male and only 29 percent are female. That’s a difference of roughly 184 million people.

Why? A 2014 abstract in the journal Future Internet found a range of answers. Beyond the general social inequalities that women in India face — with fewer employment opportunities available as they’re “trapped in traditional family roles” — there are other barriers at play too. Women there are excluded from technology education starting from a young age; they’re not considered “bread-earners” so they lack the finances for their own access; and, much like the rest of the world, they simply have less free time than men because of the hours spent doing household work and taking care of the family.

The regions worst affected by this gender digital gap are, perhaps expectedly, the most rural areas of India.

“The mobile phone revolution has, to a large extent, helped in bridging the connection [in India],” writes Neelam Ganesh, head of Innovation Portfolio at the India-based non-profit Tata Trusts, in an email. “However, the gaps in rural areas of India are still wide for reasons such as cultural barriers, lack of access, and lack of perceived values.”

In an attempt to close the gender gap, Tata Trusts — in partnership with Google — launched a program last July called Internet Saathi. (“Saathi” means “friend” in Hindu.) The initiative involves a large number of “Internet cycle carts” — think: bicycle vendors, but carrying information about Internet access — being pedaled to the most remote parts of the country, where the gap is most prevalent. When they arrive, the instructors teach selected women in the communities (the aforementioned Saathis) basic digital knowledge. When the carts move on to the next town, the women pass along the information to other women in the community. To help, Saathis are given Internet-enabled phones and tablets loaded with educational, agricultural, and health information.

“The Saathis’ key role is to move around in her and the nearby villages, and train the community,” Ganesh writes. They set up shop in schools, meeting places, and other community centers, teaching women about how to use the Internet and why it’s important. “They are becoming more aware of their rights and entitlements,” he writes. “They are able to save time in accessing information which they can use for other activities.”

While the cycle carts have somewhat solved the infrastructure problem by bringing devices into remote areas, other variables are making full adoption challenging. “Introducing the devices and technology to the rural communities is easier than getting the communities to adopt this technology,” Ganesh writes. “The mental, social, and cultural barrier of the community are some of the prime concerns. Factors like illiteracy, poverty, lack of confidence, and poor connectivity [are] hurdles.” There has also been negative pressure from husbands, fathers, and brothers. “Many Internet Saathis have faced problems from their families when they step out of the house to teach others,” Ganesh writes.

“Digital technologies can reduce the gender gaps by making several options available for women, which could bring benefits to not only the families but, eventually, the community as a whole.”

One way to sell the concept has been appealing to common sense, relaying to townsfolk how bringing women online isn’t just about closing an unfair gap, but also about bringing benefits to the entire community. “Digital technologies can reduce the gender gaps by making several options available for women, which could bring benefits to not only the families but, eventually, the community as a whole,” Ganesh writes. “Once the information and knowledge gap is less or completely bridged, women can support their families in taking better and informed decisions.”

Nearly a year after the initiative’s launch, results are positive. “The divide, we feel, is shrinking,” Ganesh writes. And the program has been instrumental in doing that. So far, they have been able to reach around 4,000 villages, and to train 1,900 Saathis, who have themselves trained over 175,000 women. The new goal is to reach 500,000 women over the next 18 months.

More women in India now have opportunities they never had before. “Women have started exploring ways to generate new revenue such as embroidery, arts, and crafts,” Ganesh writes. “We are also building entrepreneurship skills among the Saathis, as they can be the leads from the villages to connect with stakeholders for various services, which can help the local economy flourish. Women who were not even aware of the concept of Internet are now browsing online for cooking recipes, health facilities, agriculture, education results, and tailoring techniques.”

These skills translate into shrinking the gender gap offline as well. “[Women] no longer have to depend on anyone to follow their ambitions,” Ganesh writes. “This is empowering them to become independent women.”